When corporate kingdoms fall, they often lose their castles. That may well be the case with AIG. The bailout-dependent conglomerate that has made “bonus rage” a media catchphrase said Wednesday that it’s considering the sale of its legendary 66-story headquarters at 70 Pine Street in Lower Manhattan, Bloomberg confirmed. Like other assets that the American International Group is divesting itself of, this one would almost surely reap a far lower sales price in this depressed market than a couple of years ago.
Yet any price decline isn’t saying a thing about what an architectural and historical treasure this building is. The American International Building, if you have never checked it out or been inside, is one of the most dazzling Art Deco skyscrapers in New York, with an interesting pedigree. Completed in 1932, when the skyline around it wasn’t packed with towers, it stood out as the tallest building in Lower Manhattan and it was then the third tallest in the world. It’s known as one of the last great skyscrapers of the Jazz Age, the exuberant time after World War I during which Art Deco flourished.
Today, one thinks of Texas, the Gulf Coast, or the Middle East as the center of the oil industry, but not in those days. Henry Doherty, an oilman, founded the Cities Service Company in 1910. It became a highly profitable oil, gas, and electricity producer and supplier. Doherty, also a real estate developer, built the company’s headquarters in the prestigious heart of New York’s Financial District.
Clinton & Russell and Holton & George were the architects. Doherty had bought an older building on Wall Street, and he linked it with the 950-foot-tall Pine Street tower via a pedestrian bridge so that he could maintain a Wall Street address. The Cities Service triangle-centered symbol is in stone in numerous places on the skyscraper exterior.
By New York’s crime-ridden, tough times of the 1970s, some major corporations were heading elsewhere. In 1974, Cities Service, which later became Citgo, left New York for Tulsa, Okla. Two years later it sold its headquarters to AIG, a growing global insurance corporation, which has been there for 33 years.
Full disclosure: I spent some time inside the AIG headquarters in Manhattan during the 1990s, when I conducted historical research and interviews for an AIG-commissioned company history being written by former Fortune magazine and Time Inc. journalist Walter Guzzardi Jr. The company history project ended badly, according to Guzzardi in a Columbia Journalism Review article. Guzzardi died in 2002.
This skyscraper, the headquarters for just two major companies over its 77-year existence, is an elegant, slender Art Deco feast that’s well worth checking out. The soaring skyscraper is one of undulating vertical lines characteristic of that time period. I’m one of those people who look at its sequence of setbacks as if my eyes are enjoying a cascading waterfall. It’s one way that buildings have rhythm and grace.
The brick and limestone of the AIG tower are punctuated by delicate silver metal railings that contain Art Deco abstract patterns. Beyond that, the skyscraper’s best features are at the top and at the base. At the Gothic tower-style top, it has a jewel box-like glass cube rimmed in silver metal. Lit at night, it absolutely draws the eyes among Lower Manhattan’s towers, where it now stands tallest again since the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. The top contains an observatory, with windows on all sides and corner balconies.
Zigzags and Butterflies
At the base, the AIG building’s carved stonework and ornament is another mixture of beautiful Art Deco decoration. Above the doors, on both the interior and the exterior, are slender silver elements in the shapes of flowers, with silver butterflies on each side of them. (How much I would love detail like this on today’s skyscrapers.) If one wants proof that Doherty took pride in his accomplishment, look no further than the two three-dimensional stone-carved models of the entire building that are at the Pine and Cedar street entrances.
The lobby, which has very watchful guards but also a café where I grabbed a bite of lunch, has silver metal grillwork in varied geometric patterns, rich creamy-brown wood, and elevator doors with geometric shapes and mythic figures.
The building has been known for some ingenious features, too. It had a double-decker elevator, for example, which served two floors at once, according to the AIA Guide to New York City. It was the first use of such elevators. The double-deckers never quite caught on, and they are no longer in use here, the guide notes.
Its rooftop observatory is reputed to be gorgeous inside and has an amazing view. While it was owned by Cities Service, the building’s observation tower was open to the public. The 1930s WPA Guide to New York City noted that it was open weekdays; admission was 40 cents for adults; children under age 8, free. It has been closed for some time. At least one blogger, of NewYorkology, has urged AIG – now that taxpayers have a big stake in it – to reopen the observatory to all.
Perhaps, if AIG sells the building, the new owners will open the observatory to those who want yet another amazing skyscraper-top view of New York. It could happen, as they say, but I bet it will cost more than 40 cents.
The AIG Building: A Further Look
The blog Art Deco Buildings offers wonderful photos of the American International Building, which show an Art Deco light fixture, the silver butterflies, and one of the 3-D models of the building above an entrance. The blog A Year in Manhattan provides views of the AIG building’s details, both interior and exterior . This New York Architecture page offers a photo (scroll down) of the interior of the AIG observatory.
Update: In August 2009, Youngwoo & Associates purchased the AIG skyscraper at 70 Pine Street and the neighboring building at 72 Pine Street for a reported $150 million, according to The Real Deal, which called the price “shockingly low.” Best’s Review, the monthly insurance magazine, noted that the Korean developers plan to convert the top 40 floors into luxury condos and the bottom floors into retail space.